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Gun salutes

Posted on Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Editor’s Note: The following is submitted by Edward L. Crabtree of Petersburg, who is a veteran of the U.S. Navy. It is submitted to clarify gun salutes, with the notation that the late Adm. Frank B. Kelso was honored with three volleys by the Navy’s Ceremonial Guard during services at Rose Hill Cemetery. While The Times had noted that three volleys were fired, we had also termed it as a 21-gun salute, which it was not – a national salute of 21 guns is fired only on Washington’s birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, to honor the President of the United States, and to honor heads of foreign states..

In the days of cannon, it took as long as 20 minutes to load and fire a gun. When a ship fired her guns in salute, she rendered herself powerless for the duration. By emptying their guns, the ship’s crew showed shore batteries and forts that they were no threat. Over time, this gesture became a show of respect, with both shore and ship gun batteries firing volleys.

While many people like to say the 21-gun salute was a tribute to the American Revolution, a number determined as a result of adding together the numbers 1+7+7+6, the truth is, the 21-gun salute was an effort to cut costs. The habit of firing salutes became wasteful, with ships and shore batteries firing shots for hours on end. This was particularly expensive for ships, which had a limited space to store powder (which went bad quickly in the salt air).

The British admiralty first dictated the policies now in place as a practical matter to save gunpowder. The rule was simple, for every volley fired by a ship in salute, a shore battery could return up to three shots. The regulations limited ships to a total of seven shots in salute, so the 21-gun salute became the salute used to honor only the most important dignitaries.

Today, the USN Regs proscribe that only those ships and stations designated by SECNAV (Secretary of the Navy) may fire gun salutes. A national salute of 21 guns is fired on the following: Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, to honor the President of the United States, or to honor heads of foreign states.

Additionally, ships may, with approval from the office of SECNAV, provide gun salutes for naval officers on significant occasions, using the following protocol: Admiral 17 guns; Vice Admiral, 15 guns; Rear Admiral (upper half) 13 guns; and Rear Admiral (lower half), 11 guns.

All gun salutes are fired at five-second intervals, and gun salutes will always total an odd number.